William Egglestons’ Energy and Process

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The exhibit of William Eggleston (b. 1939) photographs at the Tate Modern consists of 30 photographs from two of his series,  “Chromes”, created between 1969 and 1974, and “Election Eve”, which is the result of a commission by “Rolling Stones” magazine to photograph Jimmy Carter’s hometown prior to the 1976 United States presidential election [1] . The images from the two series are not mixed and are presented subsequently, 20 from “Chrome” and 10 from “Election Eve”. Each picture in the exhibit is connected to both the one in preceding it and the one following it, by subject in some cases and by predominant colour in others. Many of the photographs are of cars and gasoline stations, some of Eggleston’s most favorite subjects [2] . Both series contain photographs of gasoline stations and, as a matter of fact, the two series are connected by three consecutive images of gasoline stations, each of a different brand, creating a seamless totality.

It is clear from the pictures that they were taken in the sixties and seventies. The automobiles, fashions and furniture styles set the historical context of the photos. In one of the gasoline station photographs, the brand evident is “Esso”, one that has not existed in the United States since the late seventies.

It is also evident that the pictures were taken in the South of the United States. There is a rural quality to the images that one usually associates with the Southern states. Furthermore, Eggleston is well known for spending most of his career documenting aspects of the South [3].

The Eggleston show at the Tate Modern is part a greater exhibition of works from different art forms entitled “Energy and Process”, which according to the exhibit notes looks at the interest of the artists in “transformation and natural forces”.  William Eggleston is credited with the transformation of fine art photography by “establishing the acceptance of colour in fine art photography [2].

Eggleston’s career initiated with black-and-white images and was inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Walker Evans.  He began experimenting with colour negative film in 1965 and in 1967 he started to use color transparency film, his ultimate medium of choice.

The one quality that captures one’s immediate attention in the Tate exhibit is the vibrancy of the colours in the pictures, particularly the reds. This is one of the trademarks of Eggleston and is a result of the dye transfer printing process  which he started using in 1972 . According to the Tate Modern Exhibition Notes this is a “highly complex and expensive process, which allows various colours within a photographic print  to be printed as separations”.  The Notes further indicate that “each colour is printed in its richest form, maintaining strong red and green tones within a single image”. The process also makes the prints durable and prevents fading [2]. The dye transfer technique, was initially used for printing advertising images and Eggleston was one of the first non-commercial photographers to use colour in his work.

The Exhibition Notes also describe the displayed collection as images recording “a particular place at a certain time”. For Eggleston what is important is that he photograph and not document every day life [2].

According to Eudora Welty in her introduction to “ The Democratic Forest” , Eggleston’s photographs “focus on the mundane world”. In his introduction to “Ancient and Modern” , Mark Holborn indicates that these mundane scenes have a dark undercurrent.  Both qualities are evident in the Tate exhibit, as the collection evokes an area in decay and a sense of alienation.

The image that immediately caught my attention and clearly exemplifies alienation is that of a white gravestone in a cemetery from the “Election Eve” section.  The stone stands out as the only white stone surrounded by grey ones.  It is at the center of the image, clearly its protagonist. The name inscribed on it “Smith” which is considered one of the most common last names in the US. The other three gravestones in which the name is evident are all inscribed with “Cranford”, an uncommon name. There are flowers at the other graves, but none at the Smith one. All of these elements serve to accentuate that the Smith grave is different and alienated from the others.

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In the image it is clear that this is a new cemetery as to the left there is an empty expanse unencumbered by any walls. In a sense, this sets the photograph apart from other photographs in the series, in particular the other “Election Eve” ones. Those images are of dilapidation and decay, whereas this one is about something new.  Then again, a cemetery is where bodies are placed so they can decay in peace. Having a cemetery as the only new thing in a decaying town also gives a clear statement that the town is dying out.  The Smith grave, although included with the other graves, sits at the very edge of an enclosure and appears to be in the last horizontal row of existing graves, further increasing the sense of alienation.

As stated before, each picture in the exhibit is connected to its neighbours by a common element. The Cemetery picture is connected to the one on its left by subject, the red earth of the cemetery, which is the same red earth as the dirt road in the neighboring photo.

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With the picture on its right the connection is one of predominant colour. The rusted roof panels in the picture on the right side are the same as the colour of the red earth of the cemetery.

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The image of the dirt road on the left of the Cemetery picture is also connected to the other photo from the Eggleston exhibit which captured my attention. It is the image of a white flowerpot on a worn out patio deck. The white flowerpot is at the horizontal centre of the photograph and stands out from the others not only by its colour, but also because it is the only one with a plant in it. This is in direct contrast with the Cemetery photo, where the white grave is the only one without flowers. The planks of the deck resemble a dead end road leading to the white flowerpot and are of almost the same red earth colour as the dirt road in the picture on the right of this image.

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The four photographs taken together create the impression that the whole town is rusting, in a state of irreversible decay. Images from “Election Eve” images were also shown at the Gagosian Gallery in Paris in 2011. There the photographs were arranged in a different order and this serves to illustrate that the way images are grouped strongly influences the context in which each image is viewed.

“Rolling Stones” never printed Eggleston’s images and in 1977 “Election Eve” was published in two volumes, which contained one hundred chromogenic prints [4]. Thirtysix years later they still make an impact.

References:

[1] http://www.egglestontrust.com

[2] http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/display/william-eggleston

[3] http://www.egglestontrust.com/election_eve_intro.html

[4] http://cityplanning.tumblr.com/post/58882541/william-eggleston-election-eve

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